On Dec. 12, Smithereens singer Pat DiNizio passed away at age 62. In tribute, today we are running our interview with the New Jersey powerpop hero from 2014.
Back in the mid-to-late ’80s, the Smithereens had a string of rock hits, including “Blood and Roses,” “House We Used to Live In,” “A Girl Like You,” and yes, “Only a Memory.” So it’s appropriate that the band headlined summer 2014’s Rock of the ’80s tour with the Romantics, Marshall Crenshaw, and Tommy Tutone.
While fans may have been interested in the tour for a dose of nostalgia, Smithereens singer/guitarist Pat DiNizio didn’t see it that way. “It’s not an oldies show by any stretch of the imagination,” he said. “We’re doing the hits, but somehow everything sounds contemporary.”
Part of the reason the band always sounded fresh was its philosophy. DiNizio fully admitted that the both the band and its audience had aged, but they were not using that fact for excuses or a crutch, rather as a motivating factor to make the Smithereens perform the best they possibly could.
“We have a philosophy in the band that we adhere to, and that is that we have to be twice as good as bands half our age, because the expectations are higher,” DiNizio said. “How many times have you gone to see someone you really liked or admired and you haven’t seen them in a while and they seem to have lost the spark, interest, or enthusiasm, and you’re let down? So we really have to work twice as hard at our age now to deliver the goods. We’ve kept it raw; we still plug right into the Marshalls and it is what it is.”
Though the Smithereens toured fairly regularly, they weren’t as prolific when it comes to recording its own material. “We’re not compelled to write all the time,” DiNizio said. “You have to have a life to write about and you have to put water back in the well.”
In 2011 the band reunited with producer Don Dixon, known for his work on R.E.M.’s first two albums, as well as the Smithereens’ 1986 debut album, Especially for You. “As Dennis Diken, our drummer, says, ‘Don is our George Martin,'” DiNizio quipped, referencing the famed producer behind the Beatles.
Between their 12-year break from recording original material, the Smithereens spent time paying tribute to some of their heroes with a series of releases. Meet the Smithereens!, released in 2007, saw the band taking on the Fab Four’s American debut album, Meet the Beatles! That was followed by 2008’s B-Sides the Beatles and 2009’s nod to the Who, The Smithereens Play Tommy.
As DiNizio noted, the band was pleased with the results, and the Beatles titles in particular did well in the digital space. “There were no Beatles tunes on iTunes [at the time] and people were hungry for anything Beatle-related,” he said. However, he admitted, “Tribute albums, in general, are really boring to me. You have 12 different artists, recording 12 different songs in tribute to someone, be it in Sinatra or Buddy Holly, recorded in 12 different studios at different times, so there’s no continuity or cohesion, whereas what we did was a totally different approach.”
Those releases also pointed back to DiNizio’s early rock ‘n’ roll roots. “This is all I’ve ever wanted to do since I was 3 or 4 years old. I saw Elvis Presley in King Creole in a movie theater on the boardwalk in Wildwood, New Jersey, just before my 4th birthday in 1959. I sat through it four times and I demanded my father buy me a guitar the next day.”
It was back in 1980 that DiNizio joined forces with three high school friends: Diken, guitarist Jim Babjak, and bassist Mike Mesaros. That lineup remained intact, with the exception of Mesaros, who left the band in 2005. “Everybody has an expiration date stamped on their forehead,” DiNizio explained. “And Mike put in 26 years of non-stop work within the Smithereens. If you’re in the military, you put 20 years in, or the postal service or any other job, you retire. … He put this whole life into this thing, but at a certain point he wanted to rest and raise a family.”
To replace Mesaros, the band called on superfan Severo “The Thrilla From Manila” Jornacion, who they met at an instore appearance for their 1988’s Green Thoughts at the old Tower Records on Sunset Blvd. in West Hollywood. “We became friends and he’s a great musician,” DiNizio said. “At a certain point, Mike had to take a leave of absence for family reasons, and [Jornacion] ended up filling in more and more. We developed this whole persona from him, the ‘Thrilla From Manila.’ It’s a good fit, he’s a hard worker, and he’s a good guy.”
Being a scholar of rock history, DiNizio admitted that the band not having all its original members right now might have been troubling for some fans. “For me, the Kinks were never the same after original bass player Pete Quaife left. That was the Kinks to me, so sometimes it’s difficult, but this guy’s been with us for 10 years now.”